Christian Living

The secret to being godly

Someone once told me that the secret to a great Bolognese sauce is… beer. I have yet to validate his claim but if anyone else is inclined to check it, I would be a most willing test subject. Perhaps mastering the Bolognese sauce is not on the top of your agenda but I think we all do want to be good at being godly. Is there a secret to godliness? Paul seems to think so.

The images that come to mind when I hear ‘godliness’ are of a person exuding the fruit of the Spirit—patient with their overly chatty neighbour, has a smile on their face whenever you see them, always willing to give up their time for others, has verses of Scripture flowing from their lips and never makes unhealthy food choices. 

I find practising godliness hard and it doesn’t help that it is often an afterthought rather than the main to-do thing for the day. Paul makes it clear in 1 Timothy that our conduct is an important part of our Christian life. Our godliness matters. So how can we get better at being godly? What is the secret?

Paul seems to give the answer to the mystery of godliness in 1 Timothy 3: 

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
 (1 Tim 3:16)

‘Mystery’ here should be understood as divine truth that has now been revealed to us. And this mystery, as it is set out in the six-line hymn, is Christ: who he is and what he has done. Godliness is inseparable from gospel truth. True piety and devotion comes from a right knowledge of God.

Godliness is usually associated with the character and behaviour of a person with a focus on conduct. But here, and elsewhere in the letter (4:7-8; 6:1-3) Paul makes close links between godliness and truth, so that godliness is also about content: what we believe.

This is why Paul speaks of this ‘mystery of godliness’ here. It is this divine revelation of who Christ is and what he has achieved that forms the basis for our godliness. The same idea is expressed in 1 Timothy 3:15 where Paul’s descriptions of the church—‘”church of the living God”, “a pillar and buttress of the truth”—shows the reason for his urging them in godly conduct. 

Our identity is anchored to the greatness of Christ’s death and resurrection. Before we set out to pursue godliness in practice we must pursue it in belief. The secret to our godliness involves pondering on the source and reason for it.

When I think about godliness I am always focusing on my actions—what I should do, what I did wrong and how I can do better next time. Over time I am left feeling frustrated and defeated because I see how far I am from the godly ideals set out in God’s word. Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3:16 makes me think that perhaps I need to turn my focus from what I can or cannot do to what Christ has done. 

Paul’s secret to godliness is that Christ is the source and motivation for it. Through Christ’s work, he has made us into the household of God and the church of the living God. We are in intimate relationship with the good, just and holy God. Our status has been transformed by Christ. Godliness is less about what we can do, but more about who we are in Christ. Godliness is displaying Christ in our lives. 

So rather than seeing godliness as an exercise of getting closer to God’s standards, perhaps it is more suitable to see our godliness as displaying the character of Christ who is in us. This shift of focus helps us to remember that godliness is both conduct and content. As a result, our reason for godliness deepens from doing things we know are good to pointing to the ultimate good that God has done for us.

What would this look like in practice?

Perhaps when I fail to be loving towards someone, instead of telling myself to be more loving, I could turn to the Bible and be reminded of how Christ loved people and ask that God will help me share Christ’s love with others through the way I conduct myself. 

Rather than waiting for a moment in my day where my godliness is tested, and only then making an effort to be godly, I could be more proactive and start the day with an aspect of the gospel that I would like to remember as I relate to others and make decisions.

Instead of fixating on how I can do things better and getting nowhere, it might be better to ponder the perfect example of godliness in Jesus and let my vision be set by his life and character.

If the mystery of godliness is Christ, then the goal of our godliness should be to display Christ in all that we do.